All good things….

Most people reading this blog will no doubt be familiar with the old adage that all good things come to an end. As summer approaches, the Quarter Sessions cataloguing project of which this blog is part and parcel is coming to a close, and your tireless qsarchivist is moving on to pastures new. So it’s a goodbye from me, and an opportunity to look back at the project and some of the things we’ve brought to light this year.

We’ve seen evidence of famines, plagues, wars and crises of all kinds for the inhabitants of Devon, examined the inner workings of eighteenth century justice and the Poor Law, borne witness to fire and flood, and puzzled over skulduggery in Aveton Giffard. There have been shipwrecks, mishaps, implausible excuses for failing to attend court, petitions from prisoners starving in the gaols, and some truly lamentable examples of sentencing excesses by the justices. The Quarter Sessions are akin to the society they reflect; colourful, expressive, lucid, and full of variety and contradiction in equal measure, and it’s been my pleasure to open the eighteenth century world they document up to examination by readers of this blog and those using the catalogue at Devon Heritage Services.

I’d like to thank readers of this blog for their contributions this year and for joining me on a fascinating journey into the past. If I were to bring all the strands of thought in this blog into a final thread as the project closes, it would be through returning to a theme I’ve spoken of through the year, a thought and motivation that has underpinned much of my enthusiasm for this project and which is one of my many motivations as a professional archivist. This theme is that of wishing to inspire in others a sympathy for and love of the past.

The documents we’ve been exploring this year convey real, not imaginary, events, and though the persons caught up in them are removed from us by a gulf of time, they were no less real, for all that, than the people around you today. Their hopes, dreams and ambitions, their passions, grievances, tragedies, trials and tribulations were as human and complex as any today, and played out across the backdrop of a world that was no less real or wonderful and frequently as cruel as our own can be today. These actors on a stage set against a vast and oft-forgotten backdrop of a former world, are our relatives, our forebears, separated from us in time but linked to us inextricably in language, custom, geography and our common humanity.

Just as I would hope that our descendants, living in an age with greater knowledge and the benefit of hindsight, will not assess our era too harshly from their point of vantage, I’ve always felt that we should be sparing in our judgments of those who went before us. They are, after all, our kith and kin, who shaped the world around us before our time. For a brief moment in time, we now occupy the places formerly held by them, and after us others will follow. What will those who follow make of our era? To care about and be inspired by the past, then, is to care about people, to be inspired by others and to be willing to learn from those who came before us.

I hope that this blog has helped to bring this past world to life, and has brought you all closer to the people who lived in it. If I have managed to achieve this in my writing, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do when I began writing many months ago.

Thanks once again for reading and taking part this year, and all the best!


How do you solve a problem like Leonard Pocock?

This post is about circumstances. It’s about elusive circumstances, to be exact. So many times as I catalogue these records I stumble across crimes that leave more questions than answers, like the indictment I saw today in which an apparently rather annoyed chap decided to assault three passers by in the road and then chuck a great amount of bloody, filthy, stinking water over them and all the goods they were taking to market in Plymouth. Why? Good question, I haven’t the foggiest, I’m afraid, but I’d love to invent a time machine that would enable me to go back and find out the details, because frankly it’s quite an odd crime.

So you can imagine how I feel about the rather contentious figure of Leonard Pocock. Mr Pocock (the spelling of his name varies but Pocock is the most common form) was a yeoman who lived in Ottery St Mary, and who seems to have had more than his fair share of trouble with tresspassers. Mr Pococke’s troubles seem to have started around Midsummer 1732 when a John Hoskyns of Kentisbeare was indicted for breaking into a close of land belonging to him at Kentisbeare called Heywoods, and for stealing two horse seams’ worth of wood. Problems for the Pockocks continued. In Epiphany 1735 Leonard’s wife, Elizabeth, gave information before a justice that during her husband’s recent sickness several items, namely a packsaddle, some girths, bags and a bridle, had been taken from a stable on their farmstead, and that she suspected one Charles Churchill or his wife of being the culprit. She claimed to have found some of these items in Churchill’s home and that he had given a spurious account of having received them by borrowing them from others.

In Midsummer 1736 John Gardiner of Ottery St Mary was presented for breaking and entering the dwelling of Mr Pocock, and Elizabeth and Sarah Taylor of the same parish were also presented for stealing from his land. All seems fairly quiet until Easter 1741 where, amongst other things, Pocock’s land was raided for wood and timber by various people in the locality, and Ann Clement of Ottery St Mary, Sarah Harris of the same parish, widow and Elizabeth Taylor of Taunton St Mary Magdalen in Somerset, were indicted for assault and battery on Elizabeth Pocock, Leonard’s wife. At the same time the Pococks were indicted for assaulting Ann Clement, who was the wife of Mr Henry Clemennt of the City of London, ‘haberdasher of small wares.’ Things were clearly becoming a bit more heated.

By Midsummer of the same year Elizabeth Taylor, who had now moved to Taunton in Somerset, was indicted for stealing a peck of beans from Pocock’s land. At the same time, John French of Ottery St Mary cut down an ash tree growing on Pocock’s land, too. Ann Clement (whose husband, interestingly, is this time given as Henry Clement of London, linen draper) was again indicted for stealing from the Pocock’s dwelling, and for attacking Pocock’s wife, and Leonard was indicted for retaliating in kind. Here’s where it gets a bit weird though. The Pococks were also both indicted at Midsummer 1741 Sessions for “unlawfully breaking and entering, using counterfeit keys and unlawful and private ways, into the dwelling of Samuel Stoddon, and for taking several chairs of the value of five shillings.”

Finally, the following year, Leonard was indicted for “in consideration of the sum of three guineas paid to him, obliterating the name of John Annear from a warrant for the arrest of John Annear, James Tozer and Peter Palmer, former officers of the parish of Kentisbeare” which had been issued to Pococke due to the failure of Annear, Tozer and Palmer to attend a previous sessions to present the accounts of the parish as directed, and to give the parish book of Kentisbeare as evidence in the case. What happened in this case is uncertain, in that there was no verdict recorded concerning it. Short of it having been tried at the Assizes or the charges having been dropped in documentation which didn’t survive, it’s unclear what happened to the Pococks in this case. But it’s certainly an interesting note to disappear on. A freeholders book for 1746 has been transcribed by a volunteer and Mr Pocock doesn’t appear at any point in the list for Ottery St Mary, so it’s possible that, at least by 1746, he’d died. A George Peacock, alias Poake, perhaps a relation, is listed as living in Kentisbear, however, and a William Pocock was a freeholder in Clayhidon at this time.

So what are we to make of the discord in Ottery St Mary? The Pococks clearly managed to stir up some opprobrium against them and it looks to have degenerated into something of a feud between themselves and a few particular individuals and their associates. The true ins and outs of it all will probably never be known to us but one thing I think it’s useful to bear in mind when piecing together a puzzle like this is that we’re looking at a point in time when land previously held in common was rapidly falling into the ownership of individuals as the manorial system gradually declined through changes in agricultural practice, and changing social trends. Was it the case that people had been used to using the resources growing on the Pocock’s land in recent years, and did Leonard and Elizabeth mark themselves out for opprobrium through overly-vigorous prosecution of infringements of their property rights?

It seems almost as though people began to make a point of breaking into their dwelling and of making petty thefts from their lands, and I can well imagine the kind of siege mentality that might have developed as a result. The Pococks themselves don’t seem to have been above a spot of breaking and entering of course, though how much was this a response to years of provocation? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were many other incidents between the Pococks and their neighbours that never reached court. The falsification of a writ, however, puts Leonard in a particularly interesting light. Although we don’t know for certain what happened regarding the allegation, he seems on the face of it to have been considered capable of petty corruption; did he have a reputation in the area for actions like this, and was he hated on these grounds? We’ll probably never know but they’re interesting questions to pose all the same.

So, if any of you are reading this from the pleasant environs of Ottery St Mary bear in mind that, for a brief period in the eighteenth century, your locality was the scene of something of a crime wave, and a seemingly vicious feud with more twists and turns than the plot of an episode of Midsomer Muders!

The quirks of the job

A while ago I made a passing remark in a blog post about the way that working with a collection extensively brings you to appreciate it in sometimes very weird and wonderful ways. I often find myself wondering, for example, what John Fortescue’s life was like, and trying to picture the office in which he worked originally with so much of the documentation I’m now cataloguing. But there are a great many other things that strike you when you’re working with a collection like this daily that might not seem strange or out of the ordinary to someone taking a casual look at the documents in the search room, so I thought I’d write about a few examples, because they give us the chance to make interesting deductions about the records.

Take, for example, the way in which the documents are originally received. Usually, each bundle is rolled up inside its wrapper, with the presentments and recognisances nesting within, and, more often than not, a stack of documents outside the roll that varies in date and contains all manner of material (this is the material I’ve got volunteers sorting and organising by date, session and document type). This is the way almost all the rolls have been found, and after they’ve been conserved and catalogued, everything’s flattened out and we have the normal finished product.

The documents for Midsummer and Michaelmas 1743, however, have been somewhat different. Rather than appearing inside their rolls, the presentments and recognisances, (which always come in batches, tied together onto a spindle at the side of the document with string), have been individually rolled, and placed in the box.

Separately, from 1742, there’s been a little oddity with the presentments, too. Presentments usually have a number of dates on them; there’s one on the left hand side which indicates when the offence being tried took place; rendered as ‘Epiph 1741’ for example. Often, there’s also then a series of annotated dates on the bottom of the document, such as ‘Apr. 19 1742, defendant appears and pleads not guilty’ and then ‘October 12 1742, defendant withdraws plea, submits, and is fined.’ Bear in mind that presentments aren’t always annotated at the bottom, but in the hypothetical example here, we’re assuming it has been. This gets a bit involved, so bear with me.

There’s a logical sequence of events depicted in the dates on the document. The offence happens in Epiphany 1741 (which, accounting for pre-1755 dating rules, means circa January 1742, as we would understand it today). The hypothetical document therefore has a date saying ‘Epiph 1741’ on the left hand side. With me so far? The next available sessions to *try* an offence taking place in January 1742, when Epiphany sessions would *already* have been sitting, would have been Easter 1742. The offence is therefore first presented in Easter 1742, which might’ve sat in April, say, for the sake of argument. This is where the first annotation at the bottom of the document, about the defendant pleading not guilty, comes in. The defendant eventually, however, later in the year, withdraws his not guilty plea, and is therefore fined, at the Michaelmas session for the year 1742. This gives us the ‘Oct 1742, defedant withdraws plea…’ etc etc annotation. This final annotated date, giving the date a verdict or conclusion to the case was reached, normally corresponds with the date of the sessions bundle the presentment has been found in, ie all the presentments in the Michaelmas 1742 bundle that have been annotated like this will have a little note saying what happened at the Michaelmas 1742 session. Logically then, in other words, these dates noting when an offence was tried and punished, should correlate with the surrounding material.

Since 1742, however, there have been examples of them not doing.

Take for example QS/4/1743/Michaelmas/PR/25. Felix Phillips of Silverton is being presented for breaking and entering the house of Thomas Channon and committing an assault and battery on Thomas, and Susannah, Thomas’ wife. The offence date (on the left hand side) marks that this occurred in 1737. That in itself isn’t a problem; it’s fairly common for offences to be tried long after they took place, so that in itself isn’t odd on its own. What is odd is the annotation ‘Mids. 1740 def appears, submits and is fined.’ The offence, in other words, has already been tried and concluded several years previously. So why is the presentment for the case filed on the same spindle as a group of presentments from Michaelmas 1743? This is as we’ve found them, remember, and this is by no means an isolated case; there are a good number of similar documents emerging, with the dates of the conclusions to the cases usually several years out from the session they’ve ended up being filed with. So in other words, I know from the interior logic of the documents, that at some point several hundred years before we opened the boxes here in Exeter to catalogue them, they’ve ended up getting interspersed and bound together with other material.

Finally, when I first started out cataloguing this material, there was no specific reference to ‘Easter 1743’ on any of the boxes, leading me to wonder whether there’d been a session held for Easter at all. Logically though, I found that there must’ve been, because loose documentation for highway repairs was turning up, so a court of some kind must’ve sat, and there was no documentation suggesting anything unusual going on before Easter 1743, like a major smallpox epidemic which might’ve caused the justices to postpone the sessions. So where were all the presentments and indictments, the recognisances, and the like? In the end, they emerged interspersed with the Epiphany 1743 material, where they’ve been for 300 years before we opened the boxes.

So what can we deduce from all this? Well, although we’re unlikely to find a document from an errant clerk of the peace saying ‘good grief, I seem to have dropped about 300 presentments on the floor and I’m not sure where to file them again’ it seems obvious that at some point in the last 300 years since the records were made, there was some kind of accident with some of the material from 1742 onwards which led to documentation being disordered and interspersed with material for other years. The fact that the Midsummer and Michaelmas 1743 material was found with its component documents individually rolled up suggests that someone other than the usual clerks handled this material at some point in the past, though we can’t be sure who this might have been, or when this took place. Our conservators believe that from the kind of dirt and the distribution of dirt on the documents, the records must’ve been stored at some point in a room in which a coal fire was in use, a tantalising detail.

Bringing all of this together, much of this underpins the underlying purpose of cataloguing; to bring order to material that has lain in disorder perhaps for centuries, and the process of doing this throws up anomalies like these from time to time. Because I’m working with this material day to day, I’m seeing these small oddities in a different light to that that most researchers in future will see them in, and together these small quirks build up a bigger picture. This is part of the fun of the job.

I currently don’t know the extent of the disorder in the presentments, which will become clearer as I catalogue further, though I suspect that it’ll only affect material over a relatively small range of dates. I’ve been keeping a log of it since it first became apparent about a month ago, and it’ll be interesting to see whether further evidence emerges from the collection which might explain why it occurred in the first place, though I suspect we’ll probably never know for sure. But it’s certainly intriguing and all part of the fun of the job. If only John Fortescue were alive today, I could ask him about it in person….but that’s the way it goes, I guess. Have a great weekend folks!

‘When with the ever-circling years….’

This week’s update is on something of a different tack to the others, more of a reflection on how things have gone so far, and what the future holds. I’m currently in the process of putting the finishing touches to the catalogue prior to fulfilling my own personal objective of putting everything catalogued so far (some 6,400 documents) online by Christmas. The catalogue is being spell checked by volunteers, the boxes are being individually checked against the catalogue to ensure that everything has been given references and that the labels on the calico wrappers around documents reflect the contents of the wrapper…..all those little jobs that are just as much a part of delivering an accessible catalogue as the main task of cataloguing the material itself is.

So where are we up to? In terms of material ready to be placed online, the project has reached 1742, so we have nearly a decade of eighteenth century material available for the public to consult. There have been some notable highlights in this documentation. The shipwreck of the ‘Anna and Helena,’ bulls being run through the streets of Newton Abbot, a ‘skimmington ride’ at Aveton Giffard, smallpox outbreaks, famines, and everything in between.

It’s also been a fun learning curve for me, as I’ve grappled with those lovely documents that defy easy categorisation. Documents like those in which John Polluxfen, while writing very generally about the highways, regales John Fortescue with stories about his latest journeys to Oxford, and gives the lo-down on who’s who, who’s where, who’s ill, and who’s not, and (almost always) claims to have fallen sick ‘just last Saturday’ making court attendance impossible. Is such a document an HI? Is it an NO? Or is it in fact a DI? And will Australia trounce us in the Ashes now that Ricky Ponting’s gone? (Perish the thought!).

We’re now coming to the end of 2012, and since August we’ve been lifting the veil on a lost world. Lost, that is, in many respects, but not in all. One of the things I’ve hoped to achieve with this blog is to show others that the past is not lost to us completely. Throughout Devon, in some places the roads still flood in the same places they flooded in 300 years ago. The world is still governed to some extent by the seasons’ round; farmers still bring in their harvests, the people of the county still struggle against the biting cold in winter. Many of the towns and parishes referred to in the documents still exist today. There are still labourers, farmers, shopkeepers and merchants in Exeter and the surrounding towns and parishes. While we now live in a world of global possibility that our forbears three hundred years ago could scarcely have imagined, it was in their time that many of the foundations of the world we live in today were laid. Surnames persist in parts of the county in which they were present in the 1730s and 1740s; the bridges and highways still need to be maintained, and law and order are still upheld, far more fairly and equitably than in the eighteenth century world we’ve been exploring together.

300 years ago, John Fortescue would have been gearing up for the impending Epiphany Sessions, to be held around 15th January. Documentation preparatory to the Sessions taking place would have been flooding in to his office or his home in Gandy Street, Exeter, from all corners of the County. Surveyors of the highways and bridges would have been carrying out their inspections. The prisoners in the gaols, or those bound out to return to court in a few weeks, would have been awaiting an uncertain future. Shopkeepers would have been selling their wares, the yeomen farmers keeping watch over their cattle, and those who could afford to might have been preparing for Christmas. John Polluxfen would have been writing a letter to excuse his attendance at court, perhaps, this time, actually ill.

This is the world this cataloguing project gives us a glimpse of, and there’s plenty more to come. Will there be generally unpleasant crimes? Most likely. Famines? Possibly. Shipwrecks? Perhaps. More importantly, there’ll be plenty of unexpected oddities, weird occurrences, and tantalising glimpses of this hauntingly familiar world. I hope you’ll continue to join me in the months ahead as we press on into the past.

A Merry Christmas and happy newy year to you all.

Zen and the Art of Cataloguing

I promised you when I started writing this blog that it’d be a bit of an insight into the world of the cataloguing archivist, besides everything else, and as I have a little bit of time this morning I thought I’d run through what I’m up to today and talk about some of the other tasks involved with a project like this, so that you can get a bit of an idea of what a typical day might involve.

I always like to plan ahead in life and my cataloguing project is no different.   The volunteers have sorted out quite a volume of paperwork from the ‘loose documents’ bundles that accompany the main sessions bundles, having organised them by document type ready for cataloguing. Having scoped the amount to be done on Friday last week, I set myself the task of getting through a good chunk of this material on Monday and Tuesday this week, so that there’s lots of space available in the relevant sort boxes for volunteers to begin sorting again on Wednesday.

On a day like today when I’m focusing purely on doing this, the numbers of documents I get through are generally a little bit lower than usual, as there’s more organising of the catalogue to be done, in creating all the different file and item level entries. Generally speaking I’ll already have ploughed through the presentments, recognisances and wrappers for the sessions beforehand, so in reality I’m sort of ‘filling in’ the remainder of the records for that session in retrospect. I prefer working this way as it means I’ll know, roughly, who is before the court and for what reasons, which gives me a good working overview of that session while I’m cataloguing the material.

I’ll frequently be doing material from several different sessions, sometimes in different years, as I go. Today for example, I’ve sorted out a number of dsicharges and highways documents from Epiphany session 1740, and I’m moving on to some Easter 1741 examinations. There’s some Midsummer 1741 documents to come after that, and a little bit of 1742 documentation I’d like to get done too, if I have the time.

Although the volunteer-sorted documentation is my focus today, there are other things I like to get done on a day like today. A day like today gives me a great chance to do some research on matters arising from documents I’ve recently catalogued, for example. Besides interesting things cropping up in the catalogued material, often volunteers will do research using the sessions books and bring up interesting material referenced there, which I’ll then follow up when I have quiet moments, and make public on the blog, especially if we can find supporting documentation from the sessions bundles.

There’s also the matter of dealing with some of the more complicated deeds enrolled before the court, which might require a bit of a quiet moment to catalogue in more detail. One particular deed I catalogued last week had had it’s entire right hand edge chopped away at some point in its past, and as is often the case, most of the salient details seemed to have been written on that edge, which meant I had to be especially careful in working with the material to make sure I’d recorded it as accurately as possible.

Besides all of the above, of course, I like to press on with producing supporting material to the catalogue when I get a spare moment. I’m working on a number of user guides to help explain the remit of the Quarter Sessions and the general scope of the material, and to explain how the material might best be used by researchers. After all, cataloguing is not just about recording the material you have, but also about making it available and useable to the public. As I write these guides I keep a weather eye on the possibility of including aspects of what I’m writing about in talks, classes and presentations in the future.

The role of a cataloguing archivist is a bit different, then, to the role of an archivist working primarily in the searchroom, but I hope, with the above, to explain a little bit about what the role really involves on a day to day basis. There are other things I could talk about too and will do in future updates, but I felt that some of you might like to know a bit more about what it’s like to do a job like this. As you can probably tell from my updates I really enjoy the scope of this kind of work; no two days are ever the same, and I think most archivists I know, whether they’re cataloguing, working in the search room, doing outreach, or running research enqiries, will tell you that the variety of the job is one of the main attractions to working in the profession.

But besides that, in what other profession do you get to learn so much on a daily basis and get such a connection to the world of the past? I hope from the above, and from the rest of this blog, I can show you why this job is so enjoyable, and if anyone reading this is interested in becoming an archivist, or is in training, or is looking to volunteer one day, I can heartily recommend it. You won’t regret getting involved.

The Apprentice (circa 1740)

Far from being lightsabre wielding would-be masters of the Force or business-savvy would-be masters of the universe looking for the patronage of a billionaire businessman, apprentices in the eighteenth century had a rather more humdrum time of it in general.

The system of apprenticeships, as with much of the Poor Law, was born (if we’re making a charitable interpretation of its motivations) out of good intentions, but as with many of the systems the Poor Law evolved, it was often somewhat lacking in its execution, and this is what my post today will be looking into.

As you may be aware, the ‘old’ Poor Law basically worked on a parochial system, whereby the parishioners of a parish were assessed and made to pay a so-called ‘Poor Rate’ to assist the poor of the parish, who might be destitute, sick or infirm, or in need of poor relief for any number of reasons. The kind of disputes and inequalities of provision this system threw up can be guessed at and need not concern us directly in this post, but it’s useful to know the general background to understand why the system of apprenticeships came into being. Having sustained or provided for an orphan child born into the parish workhouse, or having sustained pauper families through the poor rate, the parish was keen to enable the child to provide for themselves by learning a trade to use later in life, and, less altruistically, so that they were no longer a burden to the parish rate either from that point forward or in the future.

As a result, such children were bound out as apprentices to local individuals who either volunteered to take an apprentice or had one to some extent imposed on them. Their masters and mistresses were to provide for their apprentices in terms of food and lodging, and also clothing. In return, apprentices were to serve their masters and mistresses faithfully for a period of time, usually a term of years. At the end of this term the apprentice would be discharged, and able to legally practice a trade (practicing a trade without having served a recognised apprenticeship could, after all, land you in trouble with the Quarter Sessions, though the cases of this I’ve seen indicate that it was a difficult crime to prove).

So there’s the basic theory, what of the reality?

Well, as you might have guessed, cases of masters and mistresses not caring for their apprentices and failing to provide for them come up fairly regularly in the records. So too do cases of ‘excessive’ beating of apprentices, with one particularly nasty case coming to my attention the other day when I catalogued a recognisance dated 22 August 1740, in which Mr William Philips of Whitestone, husbandman, was bound to appear at the next sessions to answer charges of assaulting and beating his apprentice, Sarah Pring, and for striking her violently on the face with a pike, in two places. (QS/4/1740/Michaelmas/RE/3).

It’s perhaps no surprise then that cases of apprentices leaving their masters and mistresses are fairly common occurrences too, and often when charged for absenting themselves by their master, you’ll find a counter charge brought by the apprentice, of mistreatment or a failure of provision. Almost without exception in the records I’ve catalogued so far, female apprentices were bound out to men and again almost without exception they were bound out to learn the ‘trade’ of ‘housewifery’ or ‘good housewifery.’ Almost without exception, and unsurprisingly given the uncompromising nature of 18th century justice, apprentices are found guilty of absenting themselves from their masters or mistresses, while convictions for failing to provide for apprentices or administering excessive beatings are rare, though if a case was particularly bad the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish, who originally bound the apprentice, might discharge the apprenticeship and re-bind the apprentice to someone else.

The sad truth is that in many cases an apprentice was probably regarded as an unwelcome burden, and an extra mouth to feed. In times of hardship cases of apprentices not being provided for tend to be more common. Nor were masters or mistresses necessarily people of particularly good moral standing. At least one apprentice, Joseph Hendy of Plymstock, was forced by his master Edmond Ley, yeoman to provide him (on pain of being killed), with powder and shot, for which the churchwardens and overseers of the poor rebound the hapless apprentice to another master.

It comes as no surprise that family members, perhaps fearing the kind of exploitation the records hint at, might object to their children being bound out as an apprentice (though the poor relief could be witheld from them if they tried to prevent their child being bound out). In 1739 George Gay the elder of Pilton was presented for refusing to hand his son over to the overseers of the poor of the parish so that he might be bound out. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/9). Frequently, when apprentices did leave their master or mistress’ service, it was of course to their families they returned. But harbouring an apprentice who had absented themselves without permission from their master’s service was regarded as an offence, akin to harbouring a fugitive. The master was well within their rights to inform the town crier that their apprentice had absconded, and that nobody was to harbour or entertain them. This happened when Anne Edbury absconded from her master James Reed junior, going to her father, Philip Edbury of Crediton, who was subsequently prosecuted for having harboured and entertained her. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/30) The circumstances surrounding her decision to leave are not recorded (nor are they in any cases I’ve seen).

The apprenticeship system, as we can see, left a lot to be desired, though it’s important to kae a balanced view. In some cases it must surely have provided people with the means to earn their living after their service was completed, and the traces of the apprenticeship system recorded in the Quarter Sessions are often going to have a negative air to them given that we are dealing in the end with court records. It’s important not to portray the entire system as hopelessly corrupt; to do so would be to get trapped within the sources, after all.

Nevertheless, the experience was undoubtedly mixed, and like many things in the eighteenth century, being a poor child of a parish bound out as an apprentice was yet another life lottery. Some would undoubtedly have prospered as a result, but I can’t help feeling that for many who faced neglect, abandonment and exploitation by their masters and mistresses, this would undoubtedly have seemed an appalling and perhaps even tyrannical system, leaving them branded as criminals if they attempted to escape or take their chances to improve their lot.

On the positive side the apprenticeship system highlights one way that 18th century society attempted to tackle the problems of poverty in its midst. Yet on the negative side the flaws in the system sometimes provided a means whereby the poor could be exploited. Once again though I’m left to conclude that I’m glad I don’t live in eighteenth century Britain!

The ‘Great Frost’ comes to Devon?

A double update for you this week, because, as often happens, another strand of interesting material emerged which I just had to share. As you can imagine, after cataloguing a collection for a few months you begin to become aware of things that are outside the normal run of things, such as a preponderance of highway material for a session, indicating that the road network was particularly suffering at that point in time, or documentation about out of the ordinary events, like the ‘skimmington ride’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Well, for Midsummer Sessions 1740 there were no fewer than 85 presentments (these are the documents detailing allegations) and 113 recognisances (binding people to turn up to court to answer charges, or give evidence about crimes committed). While these are relatively large numbers, that’s not completely out of the ordinary, but the fact that the crimes are, in the majority, related to thefts of food, agricultural equipment and fuel, indicated that times had been hard in Devon the previous winter, and the Midsummer sessions was mopping up the resulting crime wave.

So, I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that 1740 was a terrible year in Ireland, a year whose winter and sping were known as the ‘Great Frost,’ where families burned through winter fuel reserves in matters of days to try to survive, where harvests were meagre, and people perished of famine. Although the hardships of 1740 have been overshadowed by the terrors of the Potato Famine a century later, the Irish Famine of 1740-41 was so terrible that contemporaries called it the ‘Bliain an Áir’ or ‘Year of Slaughter.’

Most scholarship I’ve found so far focuses almost without exception on the situation in Ireland, but even within this scholarship there is an acknowledgement that the weather system causing the hardship in Ireland prevailed over most of Europe; indeed, weather readings from mainland Britain indicate that the weather was just as bad on this side of the Irish Sea, too.

What caused the unseasonal weather is not currently known with any certainty, though similar years or periods of hardship and unseasonable winters affecting the entire Continent often have links to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world lowering global temperatures through the accumulation of ash and soot in the Earth’s atmosphere, as happened after the Krakatoa eruption in the nineteenth century (the noise of which interestingly, produced what is reckoned to be the loudest sound ever heard in human history). The 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused famine across Europe thanks to the volume of ash ejected blocking sunlight, and the flouride within the ash which poisoned crops and livestock. In this light, the eruptions of Mount Asahi and Mount Tarumai in Japan in 1739 and the subsequent unusually cold weather in Europe may indeed be related.

But what of the people of Devon? Well, depressingly it seems the justices of the peace, confronted with this crime wave, reacted by transporting just about everyone convicted of crimes of theft. Eighteenth century society, though often branded ‘enlightened’ had yet to make the link between the reality that when people were facing starvation they became more likely to turn to  crime to survive the period of hardship. It was not the nature of the eighteenth century world to attempt to understand the underlying reasons for waves of crime of this nature; instead such episodes were seen as threats to the social order which had to be removed, in this case to the colonies.

As is often the case with cataloguing this material, I feel gald that I don’t live in the eighteenth century world. We have the tools to understand these kinds of social situations more deeply, and the capacity to respond to them with greater humanity than our forebears did. Nevertheless, we must always remember that it is not whether we call ourselves ‘enlightened,’ as our eighteenth century forebears did, that actually makes us so, but whether we act in similar situations today with an enlightened attitude towards the genuine human misery these situations can cause.

As an optimist, I like to think that we do. And on that philosophical note, I’ll wish you all a great weekend!